Though it’s early, Dodgers thinking playoffs

LOS ANGELES — Dodgers’ bench coach Trey Hillman is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable men in pro baseball.

As manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, he led his team to three championships in 2006: The Pacific League crown; the Japanese World Series and the Asia Series. Back in the States for the 2008 season as manager of hapless Kansas City, he spent two-plus years at the helm of the Royals prior to being detached in May of 2010 after compiling a 142-182 record.

When Don Mattingly — who had never managed at any level — was named Dodger manager in late November 2010, he immediately announced that the well-respected Hillman would become his right-hand man. Accordingly, Hillman’s thoughts carry a lot of weight in the current Dodger administration.

So, prior to the start of the season, the Amarillo, Texas native was asked if last year’s strong finish by the Dodgers — a 34-20 record over the season’s final two months — would carry over onto 2012.

Taking a moment to think about it prior to a Freeway Series game against the Angels, Hillman said “you know, with most teams the answer would be no, because players change and some of the wins came against teams using many of their 40-man roster, some guys who had never played in the big leagues. But with our club I think it’s different.

“The guys really just decided that they didn’t want to finish up with a losing record, and we began to do everything better. (They ended up with a win-loss mark of 82-79) And so far in spring training, the feeling is exactly the same as when we ended the season. Guys are fired up and they really believe this is a championship-caliber club.”

Seventeen games into the season, Hillman looks like a prophet.

With L.A.’s 7-2 win Monday night in the opener of a three-game series against the Atlanta Braves (10-7), the Dodgers improved their record to 13-4, best in baseball. They’ve won seven without a loss at home.

Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier continue their torrid hitting, picking up five hits in seven at bats between them. Ethier also drove in a run, his major-league leading 23rd. Kemp is batting a phenomenal .460 and leads the majors in homers with nine and is second with 22 RBI. Juan Uribe contributed going 4-4 with three RBIs. The pitching has been superb with a team ERA of 3.19 and WHIP of 1.19. Closer Javy Guerra has seven saves, tying Arizona and Baltimore for the MLB lead.

Despite the great stats, the Dodgers still have their doubters around baseball.

Talk on some of the local radio shows claim that while Kemp and Ethier will likely remain extremely productive and the overall offense will be good enough to win, they’ll eventually get betrayed by their starting pitching.

Lefthander Clayton Kershaw is the defending Cy Young Award winner and so far looks like he’ll challenge for another. He’s 1-0 with a 1.61 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Number two starter Chad Billingsley looked like he had finally regained the form that allowed him to pick up 16 wins in 2008, before hovering near .500 in the three years since, going 35-33 with a 3.94 ERA.

Billingsley was completely dominant in winning his first two starts, pitching 14.1 innings against San Diego and Pittsburgh and striking out 15 while allowing just one run. His next two starts were mediocre at best, pitching a total of 9.1 innings against Milwaukee and Houston and striking out just two batters in each game. The Astros slammed him all over the ballpark, scoring nine runs — five earned — and giving the big righthander his first loss of the season.

After Billingsley, the rotation consists of Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano: all serviceable pitchers but none who will remind anyone of Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander.

Manager Don Mattingly insists he’s got confidence in all his starters and isn’t too worried about Billingsley’s regression lately.

“Ted, (Aaron and Chris) are proven veterans,” Mattingly said, “and I have confidence anytime I send any of them to start a game. We all know what Clayton can do, and will continue to do for a lot of years.

“For Chad, it’s been a rough few years, but except for that one game really (against Houston) he’s looked good. He knows what’s expected of him and he’s very confident in his abilities. I’m looking for him to have a real good year.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this game is usually about pitching. Our ‘pen has been very good; I think Javy is already one of the best closers in the game. We just have to keep our consistency every game and we’ll be fine.”

Kemp, who has been the N.L. Player of the Week twice already, agrees with his manager.

“We’ve got a really good team, and we’ve shown it so far,” said the centerfielder, who finished second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in last year’s MVP race. “There’s great talent all the way up and down this roster, and most important is that we have guys here who care about the team first and winning first. This is a real team and I’m happy to be a part of it.

“I believe that we can definitely make the playoffs; not just make the playoffs but win the division and get to the World Series. Lot of people say that early in the season if they get off to a good start, but for us it’s different. We finished up with a great two months last season when everybody was down on us, and we’ve come out with that same momentum and confidence this year. Donnie has done a great job with the team and making sure everyone stays confident.”

One of those is James Loney, who started the season in an 0-19 slump. Mattingly preached patience with his first baseman, and it’s starting to pay off.

His average is up to .245 after two more hits against the Braves, and over the last week has reached base 12 times, including hitting his first home run. Loney said it was just a matter of time.

“I’ve felt really good at the plate all year long,” Loney said, “but with 162 games some of them are going to get caught. But I’m swinging the bat well, feeling confident, and this is going to be a very special year for this team.

“We all feel it.”